An extraordinary year, like none other. A symphony hall gave Los Angeles a new symbol, a new reason to feel good about itself. An architect, an acoustician, a symphony orchestra and its music director became civic stars. The world looked on in envy. Who would have ever thought?
The Gehry-Toyota-Salonen Triumphant Triumvirate. It took 16 long years to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the outcome was often in doubt. But the wait was worth it, and Disney Hall opened at exactly the right time. The world was ready to appreciate the genius of Frank Gehry. The Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen was ready to show what the future of a symphony orchestra might be. And it was ready to play in the so-immediate-you-can-reach-out-and-touch-the-sound yet warm-as-a-summer-day-at-the-beach acoustics of Yasuhisa Toyota.
The Gehry-Toyota-Botstein Triumphant Triumvirate. The Gehry-Toyota-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York state opened six months before Disney and proved another great venture. More important, Leon Botstein, Bard's president and a conductor of increasing repute, made the 900-seat hall and the two smaller theaters the site of a major new August festival, SummerScape, that introduced amazing theater from Russia, a wild production of "Don Giovanni" starring a Czech pop star, and a riveting Janacek festival.
John Adams. If he wasn't already America's composer, he certainly became it in 2003. Adams won the Pulitzer Prize, gave Disney the sensational "Dharma at Big Sur," became Carnegie Hall's composer in residence and moved audiences in Los Angeles and New York with "El Nino."
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The mezzo-soprano is mesmerizing in everything she sings, and this year she was especially so in Berlioz's "The Trojans" at New York's Metropolitan Opera and as Melisande in Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande" with the Boston Symphony. She brought to a Bach cantata, accompanied by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, about as much expression as a listener could handle. Her Bach disc for Nonesuch is a record of the year.
Boulez. He's nearing 80, but you'd never have known it as the indefatigable Pierre Boulez closed the Los Angeles Philharmonic's final season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, returned as music director of the Ojai Festival and led a superb concert of Mahler and Wagner in Disney Hall.
Berlioz. At 200, he's finally getting his due. The Met's impressive "Trojans" and its wonderfully flamboyant staging of "Benvenuto Cellini" demonstrated just how exciting and original these neglected operas are. Los Angeles Opera opened its season with Achim Freyer's gloriously offbeat production of "The Damnation of Faust."
MTT and Rattle. Michael Tilson Thomas and Simon Rattle, both former Los Angeles Philharmonic principal guest conductors, have gone on to greatness, and both showed why at Disney Hall. MTT brought an astonishing degree of expressivity to Mahler's Sixth Symphony in his first concert with the Philharmonic in 18 years. Rattle, now on top of the world as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, led a thrilling reading of Schubert's Ninth Symphony with his German band. Rattle also demonstrated why he has become one of today's finest Mozarteans when he led a ravishing performance of Mozart's "Idomeneo" in Peter Sellars' politically engaged and theatrically overpowering production at the famed Glyndebourne opera festival in England.
Big Ambition. Nothing, not even budget crises, can stop composers from thinking big. John Tavener came up with an enthralling all-night vigil, "The Veil of the Temple," in London. The Pacific Symphony revived William Bolcom's massive masterpiece, "Songs of Innocence and Experience." The Orange County Performing Arts Center presented the West Coast premiere of Terry Riley's epic, literally stellar "Sun Rings." Andrew Violette recorded his portentous three-hour Piano Sonata No. 7. The FLUX Quartet doubled that feat by recording the longest version yet of Morton Feldman's String Quartet II, its single movement lasting more than six hours -- the other record of the year.
Bad New Opera. Deborah Drattell's "Nicholas and Alexandra" at Los Angeles Opera was the rare disaster unanimously slammed by critics. The subject also defeated an outstanding opera composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose "Rasputin" premiered in Helsinki, Finland, a few days later. Bright Sheng's "Madame Mao" in Santa Fe had such a poor libretto that it would have had little chance even with a stronger score. At Tanglewood in Massachusetts, Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" overcame a not very strong libretto and terrible production thanks to terrific music and a strong cast.
In Memoriam. We lost two greats: Lou Harrison, the dean of California music, and Luciano Berio, Italy's most important composer since Puccini. Both were exhilarating, ardently expressive and strikingly original and inventive musicians who brought color into our lives and radically affected 20th century music.
Swed is The Times' classical music critic.